A Colorful Look Back at Pre-Castro Cuba

Mobsters do the mambo

The best image of the capitalist/criminal cabal that ran pre-revolutionary Cuba was captured in the Havana episode in The Godfather, Part II, where gangsters famously slice up a cake decorated with a map of the country. Now comes the book version of that sordid saga, and we're happy to report from T.J. English's fascinating Havana Nocturne that many of the movie's telling details are dead-on accurate.

For instance, communications colossus IT&T (UT&T in the movie) really did give Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista a solid-gold telephone in thanks for its local monopoly. The slick character named Johnny Ola who takes care of business for Hyman Roth (who's supposed to be mob finance whiz Meyer Lansky) is based on a wiseguy named Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo. ("Ola" is "Alo" backwards, see?). And there really was a character called "Superman"—proud possessor of a 14-inch schlong—who performed a must-see live sex show at the notorious Shanghai Theater.

Such amusements in 1950s-era Havana were the product of what English calls "perhaps the most organic and exotic entertainment era in the history of organized crime." In Havana, mob-owned casinos and nightclubs fed off a ruthless dictatorship and vice versa. Collecting his fee for tolerating these indulgences, Batista's emissaries made nightly visits to casino counting rooms and emerged with satchels stuffed with cash. All told, Batista took some $10 million a year off the mob, according to English.

Casinos, gold phones, and Kennedy's hookers: Perez Prado, the original mambo king
Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images

Casinos, gold phones, and Kennedy's hookers: Perez Prado, the original mambo king

Until Castro's rumpled, bearded rebels spoiled the fun on New Year's morning, 1959, it was a near-perfect devils' pact: "These mobsters had always dreamed of one day controlling their own country," writes English, "a place where they could provide gambling, narcotics, booze, prostitution, and other forms of vice free from government or law enforcement intrusion."

As it happens, the regime that made this deal also specialized in cheating and torturing its own citizens. But while Havana Nocturne makes you glad that Batista and his gangster pals ultimately got what they deserved, it also makes you regret never having gotten the chance to soak up a few mojitos while catching the floor show at the old Tropicana, the fabulous nightclub nestled in the jungle on the city's edge.

Havana under the mob was the place that launched Chano Pozo and Afro- Cuban jazz, where band leader Perez Prado created the mambo, and where crooner Beny Moré, the Cuban Frank Sinatra, sang his aching "Como Fue." American talent, Sinatra and others, were regulars at Lansky's lavish cabaret in the Nacional Hotel. To encourage tourism, Pan Am offered a $35 round-trip flight from Miami to Havana. The airline had good reason to do so, English notes: It owned a controlling interest in the Nacional, while letting Lansky run the joint.

Lansky later built an even bigger palace, the Riviera, located on the ocean-splashed Malecón boulevard. He hired Ginger Rogers to star at his Copa Room, modeled after New York's Copacabana. The gambling czar was pleased with her sex appeal but not with her voice. "She can wiggle her ass, but she can't sing a goddamn note," he said.

Lansky's partner and sometimes rival was the wily Santo Trafficante of Tampa, Florida, who ran the Hotel Deauville, also on the Malecón, the Sans Souci nightclub, and the luxurious Hotel Capri. He also had the Comodoro hotel and casino where, in 1957, Trafficante allegedly fixed up a young American senator named Jack Kennedy with a trio of hookers.

Trafficante later kicked himself for not having filmed the scene, English says. He also badly misjudged the growing Castro rebellion. "This is a temporary storm," he insisted as the rebels took Havana. "It'll blow over." Lansky, the son of Russian exiles, disagreed. "I know a communist revolution when I see one," he said.

Batista, who beat it out of Cuba on New Year's Eve without warning his American partners, wound up with a fortune of some $300 million, English says. Lansky wasn't as lucky. Lansky's granddaughter told English that at his death in 1983, the old man left a whopping $37,000 in cash. When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, the gangster offered no excuses. "I crapped out," he said.

 
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